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The Big 6: Questions Answered After the AAA 400 at Dover

Looking for the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How behind Sunday’s race? Amy Henderson has you covered with each week with the answers to six race day questions, covering all five Ws and even the H in Big Six.

Who… gets my shoutout of the race?

Gaining double-digit positions over the course of a race isn’t easy, and at Dover it’s even harder. Need proof? The top-four finishers on Sunday gained a total of 11 positions between them. And then, there were Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon. Bowyer gained 19 positions from his 27th-place starting spot to finish eighth, while Gordon’s 12th-place result represented a 22-position gain over where he began the day in 34th. In other words, the drivers passed 42 cars – nearly the entire field, over the course of the race. That’s an impressive feat.

What… was THAT?

Admit it; when Denny Hamlin got into the back of AJ Allmendinger on lap 5 of the race, we all thought he was toast. Allmendinger is good at Dover and has been knocking on the door of a victory at times this week, so when Hamlin sent Allmendinger up the track, I was penciling in Hamlin as the villain of the week for wrecking the No. 43 car out of its best chance at the elusive W. There’s just one problem: the wreck never happened, as Allmendinger pulled off what might have been the save of the year, righting the car despite the rear end coming around nearly a full 90 degrees before he got the Ford straightened out. Allmendinger never hit anything, and by the time the pace car picked up the field, had the car shook down like nothing had ever happened – though he drove up beside Hamlin to express his displeasure – and went on to lead laps later in the event before finishing seventh.

Where… did the polesitter wind up?

After a promising start to the weekend, Martin Truex Jr. took the green flag in P1 at the track he considers home, but it didn’t take long for the New Jersey native to start a slide backwards as the No. 56 team fought the track. As one car after another drove past Truex, it was evident that the handling just wasn’t there. In the end, Truex limped home in 30th place, four laps down with nothing to show for a solid qualifying effort.

When… will I be loved?

They don’t call Dover the Monster Mile for nothing. Even though most of the drivers were kind to each other on Sunday, the track wasn’t so gracious, and its walls took a bite off several cars, including those of Greg Biffle, JJ Yeley and Mike Bliss (twice). The track also had the last laugh in the race outcome, changing just enough late to keep the best team of the day out of Victory Lane. The same could be said for its impact on the Chase, relegating several contenders to mid-pack when they just couldn’t get a handle on the concrete surface. This monster is a mean one.

Why… is Joe Gibbs Racing’s move to TRD engines bad news for other Toyota teams?

When it was announced earlier this year that Joe Gibbs Racing would close down their engine shop and move to Toyota’s TRD engine program, it seemed to be a lateral move at best, and if anything, it would benefit other Toyota teams as they would gain the knowledge that JGR’s engineers could bring to the program as a whole. Only it didn’t quite work out that way. Instead, the move will apparently leave JTG Daugherty Racing and Germain Racing out in the cold for 2012.

TRD has told those teams that they can supply engines for only six Cup programs. Those will be the three JGR teams and most likely three Michael Waltrip Racing ones (the organization likely to announce a third car for Bowyer later this week). That means that both JTG Daugherty and Germain are looking at the possibility of having to scramble to find other teams to align with (both got chassis from MWR and engines from TRD) plus a new manufacturer willing to give factory backing to smaller teams. Once again, the road gets harder for the little guy.

How… is the championship picture developing with seven races to go?

With terrible runs for Tony Stewart, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. the picture changed quite a bit just one week after it appeared to be coming into focus. Once again we are left without a clear title favorite, though it is becoming increasingly apparent who is not going to contend.

Kevin Harvick finds himself at the top of the heap by virtue of running consistently at the front; Harvick hasn’t won a Chase race, but he hasn’t finished worse than 12th in the last three races. Plus, the bonus points he got for his regular-season wins have kept Harvick on top. Could 2011 be the year where winning the Chase doesn’t require multiple wins, but rather running consistently and avoiding trouble?

Carl Edwards definitely kept his hat in the ring this week, sitting in a points tie with Harvick, though Harvick maintains the lead based on his win total. Edwards hasn’t been as consistent recently as he was to start the year, but he’s a definite favorite for now. So are Kurt Busch, thanks to his win at Dover, and Stewart thanks to his two Chase wins, though consistency remains a question for both.

Jimmie Johnson had an impressive race at Dover and nearly put himself back in contention. However, Johnson’s team has not shown that they can go out and take a race win like they could in years past. Johnson’s lone win at Talladega was nice, but winning Talladega is a bit like winning the lottery, and the team has failed to score on intermediate tracks which make up four of the remaining seven races, or at Martinsville or Phoenix, tracks where they dominated in the recent past. Bottom line, if this team doesn’t win next week at Kansas, they’re done.

Sixth through ninth in points are an interesting case. All are within 19 markers of the top, but none looks like they have what it will take to go out and beat up to eight teams for seven weeks. Keselowski’s team is a year away from being a real, yearlong contender. Matt Kenseth, like Johnson, needs to dominate and win races to have a chance. Kyle Busch has never been able to hold it together in the Chase, and Gordon, a favorite heading in, just hasn’t found the magic. These four need wins to stay in it… but none have quite looked like winners in the last three weeks.

Finally, you can probably stick a fork in Earnhardt, Hamlin and Ryan Newman. All are 34 points or more out of the lead, in need of a minor miracle to turn it around the right way while nine teams ahead of them turn the wrong way all at once.

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